Kentucky advances to NCAA volleyball Sweet 16

mmaloney@herald-leader.comDecember 1, 2012 

There are sporting cliffs as well as fiscal cliffs.

Kentucky was looking over the edge of the former Saturday, on the brink of trailing Ohio State 2-0 in the second round of the NCAA Volleyball Tournament.

The Wildcats scored four straight points, though, to pull out a 26-24 second-set victory, then went on to complete a 3-1 victory before an enthusiastic Memorial Coliseum crowd of 1,583.

By prevailing 18-25, 26-24, 25-15, 25-18, the Cats advance to face No. 1 Penn State in the Sweet Sixteen Friday at Purdue.

Two wins there would put UK into the Final Four, Dec. 13 and 15, at Louisville.

"This team's got a lot of toughness and they stood up when the pressure was against them and executed," UK Coach Craig Skinner said of the second-set rally. "That's a sign of senior leadership. That's a sign of composure. And a sign of a team that trusts each other and works for each other, and that was the moment that we needed them."

UK's Whitney Billings posted her 30th career double-double and 17th of the year, with 10 kills and 12 digs.

Lauren O'Connor topped the Cats with 16 kills and Alexandra Morgan had 10.

UK (22-10) finished with 11.5 blocks, including seven block assists by Morgan.

Then there was the defensive specialist, three-time Southeastern Conference Libero of the Year Stephanie Klefot. She totaled 18 digs, plus five service aces. Billings added three of UK's 10 aces.

"We practice so much on our serving. We always try to go back there and be aggressive, and it's a lot harder to do when you're in the big games," Klefot said. "But Craig told us before we went back 'take a deep breath before you go back and serve.' I think that helped. I think when we focus on attacking a certain spot on the court, then we normally get more aces out of that."

UK, in the NCAA for the eighth season in a row and 14th time overall, is in its second straight Sweet Sixteen.

Ohio State (23-11), ranked No. 14, had made the last two Sweet Sixteens.

"Really, they won the serve-and-pass game, and we knew that. That was No. 1; we had to win that," Buckeyes Coach Geoff Carlston said. "Whoever won that game was going to win the match, and they did."

Ohio State got off to a fast start. Kaitlyn Leary had eight kills and Mari Hole totaled five kills and five digs to fuel a 25-18 opening-set win.

Hole finished the night with 18 kills and 12 digs.

"The first game we came out a little shakey," Billings said. "But after that we figured out what they were doing and how they were running things, and we adjusted the last three games."

In the second set, a 4-0 spurt gave UK a 14-8 lead.

Ohio State caught the Cats at 18, took a 23-20 lead, then served for the set at 24-22.

A Billings kill kept UK alive and triggered a 4-0 flurry for the win, capped by a Billings ace.

"It was rough because we had been kind of rolling through that set," Ohio State's Emily Danks said. "I think we were feeling pretty good and it was just that moment of letup that they took control of the game."

The third set was all Kentucky, capped by an O'Connor kill.

"The passes were so good along with Christine (Hartmann, who had 42 assists) — her sets were on point. ... I feel like we were all there playing together," O'Connor said.

The fourth set was tied at 6 when Kentucky scored six in a row to start a 10-1 run.

The Cats never lost control, getting the match-winner on a quick kill by Hartmann.

"We had a great game plan, and it didn't work in game one," Skinner said. "But we stuck with it and executed it as the match went on. And our serving and block got involved. And then people stepped up. We had some great defensive plays by Klefot, great decisions by our setter and our attackers put the ball away when we needed them. And just continued to apply the pressure with our serve as the match went on."

Mark Maloney: (859) 231-3229. Twitter: @markmaloneyhl. Blog: markmaloney.bloginky.com

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